DC Brau’s 5th Anniversary Festival is this weekend. Five years is a big mark for a brewery, especially one that has done so much to bring brewing back to a city. I had the chance to talk to co-founders Brandon Skall and Jeff Hancock over the phone this week to get their thoughts about their past, present, and future. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript.
By the way, tickets for the Festival are still on sale. If you’re worried about transportation, there will be a free shuttle provided courtesy of Reston Limousine via the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station. They’ve also got some affordable limo packages available if you want to split a trip in style with some friends.
DCBeer: When you opened DC Brau, you had a vision for a brewery. You saw what you wanted your brewery to be when it opened, and I’m guessing you thought about what you wanted it to be down the line. Now that we’re down the line, how does it look to you?
Jeff Hancock: I think that our overall level of production definitely exceeded the timeline. I think we were thinking we’d be at this point probably between the seven and ten year marks. So in that regard, I feel I can speak for both of us that our expectations have been blown out of the water in a good way.
Brandon Skall: Yeah, absolutely. On sort of a more thematic level, the original dream that Jeff and I had was to have a brewery that represented the city and was widely thought of as synonymous with beer in Washington, DC. And I’m really proud to say that I think we’ve achieved that and maintained that. There’s now several breweries in DC, which is fantastic, but we’re very proud that we were the first. We’re very proud that we’re a part of starting this tradition back up again. That was a big goal for us. It’s great that five years later I still feel like that’s a relative part of how people associate our brand.
DCBeer: In the same way that Brooklyn Brewery has become the beer of Brooklyn, you kind of see yourselves as that standard bearer for the DC market?
BS: Yeah, totally. One of the other things that we envisioned for the brewery, which is a little harder to pull off, was this balance between the more commercialized side that we need to support business and continue growth, and the more fun, creative, one-off, playful side where we get to brew beers that come from immediate places of inspiration or brew beers that are collaborative efforts that vary from what we brew all the time. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I think a lot of breweries pigeonhole themselves, like ‘Yeah we’re only going to make these three beers and that’s it’, or ‘We’re going to make a different beer every time,’ and that’s great. Those are all great models, but we wanted to do something that was a bit of a combination between the two.
JS: Like Brandon was saying we want to have our flagships out there so that consumers from the area and not from the area can find them easily when they come into town. And also do some fun one-off stuff to keep the creative juices flowing to keep the brand fresh and relevant.
DCBeer: You mention some of the other breweries, and you mention keeping this balance between your flagships and being creative. What are some of the other things that separate you from other area breweries? Not just DC breweries; the whole region has seen really big growth. How are you staying unique out there in the market?
BS: We're staffing ourselves so that we can accommodate all of the market needs that we can find. One of the things that Jeff and I found early on is that from a marketing presence side, we were just two people. In addition to doing everything at the beginning as far as production goes, we were also really stretching ourselves by going out and doing a lot of events. So as we've continued to grow and hire. We've created an events team: a team of people that is able to prioritize events as to who should be at them, why certain people need to be there, and basically accommodate anything in the market that does become available.
Another one of the ways we differentiate ourselves is through investments in quality assurance equipment. We're pretty proud of the centrifuge we just purchased [and] the lab. I think there's a definite balance factor when you're growing that's really hard to achieve, which is where do you reinvest your money into the brewery? You eventually get to a level where you can't justify creating more beer without really investing in your quality assurance and control. We've been able to do that in the past year, so we're really, really happy about that.
Also, I think just the level or amount of beer that we produce also sets us [apart]. We do produce a lot more than most of the other breweries in northern Virginia and DC and immediately surrounding us in Maryland, but we're still tiny in the scheme of things. When you compare us up against some other nationally or even semi-nationally distributed breweries, even other regional craft breweries, we're way under production, but for the area we do tend to be leading that.
JH: Like Brandon was saying, we don't make it out to a crazy amount of events like we did when we were first launching the brand, but we both still personally like to attend a handful of events throughout the year to let the market know we're still involved and we still care about our beer and we care about the city. We're not just names hiding at the brewery who don't make it out at all. Also, the investments in equipment, we have a really consistent product. The area has gotten behind us. And to keep that product consistent as we grow, we have to invest and not necessarily do things on a reactive basis but more of a proactive basis. Just so we can keep growing with the demand and keep quality in check.
DCBeer: You both mentioned quality, and Andrew Nations of Great Raft asked me this morning…his question for you was what's the single best decision you made to increase quality?
JH: The centrifuge is the one that sticks out. The other stuff is on my end [included] establishing good standard operating procedures and hiring people that were right for the job that could work with Brandon and myself. Having good operating procedures, being very clean, which is obviously a thing that is paramount in breweries. We got some sieves for malt extraction. Malt is one of our largest expenses here at the brewery, and we purchased a series of sieves so that we can break down the grind that your mill is producing just so you're sure that you're getting consistent yields from all the beers across the board. Up until recently, we've been relying on good standard SOPs and having an open line of communication with consumers. If there's any kind of issue that befalls a brewery…if someone thinks they got a bad product, we've been very good about being responsive. We don't shove anyone under the rug. The centrifuge commissioning last September was a way to take the beers that were already good and well-received in the market and further homogenize the quality, making them even more consistent and adding to their shelf stability. A dissolved oxygen meter was a huge one. That helps the shelf stability so we're able to put metrics directly to the beer.
BS: I remember that at the time we purchased the dissolved oxygen meter just what a financial burden it was for us to take on that piece of equipment. It was definitely the highest cost piece of equipment that did not directly affect production up to that date. So it was definitely a tough pill to swallow, but then when we were able to, like Jeff said, apply some system of constant analysis and observation to our product, we were able to really improve the quality of the product that did make it last on the shelf and did make it more consistent. I think that you can get away with some inconsistency for the first couple years, it can even come off as charming, but at some point you have to really be serious with yourself and the brewery and serious with your consumers. If you want to be in this for the long haul, there really is no other choice than starting to make those investments in what's really best for your beer. I think it's something that consumers do respect, and it starts to show itself in sales. It's gradual. It doesn't happen right away, but you do start to see your consistency of sales starting to match the dollar amount you're spending in creating a consistent product. I think it's a very worthwhile investment and something everyone has to do at some point if they want to stick around.
DCBeer: Tell me a little bit about what you think of the current state of the DC beer scene. What are we doing well overall? Not just the breweries. Distributors, bars, restaurants, consumers, all of that. That's a fairly broad question, but if you had to narrow it down to 1-3 things you think we're doing pretty well and 1-3 things you think we could improve on.
BS: Well I think as far as pretty well: the integration of local and craft culture into all of the points of sale that are in the region. This is probably a positive and a negative. Retail, on- or off-premise, whatever. It has been a really fantastic past few years where people have really started to see the importance of local beer. Not just the fact that it's local but why that is a good thing. The freshness of beer. Developing the palates of those who are coming out to partake of your beer. People getting very serious about it. I think [District restauranteurs have] done a very good job of understanding that when [their] new businesses open [they] do need to have 10-15 beers on tap and [they] should have half of those be local….There's also the sort of mentality that you should really understand your product if you're going to do that. Just because it's local doesn't mean it's good. I think any local brewery would say that as well. Just to have a beer on because it's local, though we appreciate the business, we want the reason the beer is on to be because people respect the product and they respect the job that we're doing to put it out.
JH: I always feel the need for constant education for consumers, bar owners, and restaurant owners. I think we're doing a good job, but I think obviously there's still a lot of work to be done. Thankfully, I feel more and more bars that I go to are starting to implement more regimented draft line cleaning schedules. That makes me happy, and it helps to translate these beers that everyone is working so hard to produce locally. If they're not getting a fair shake on the draft lines, you can lose many a consumer based on some owner's lackadaisical approach to keep the lines clean and whatnot.
DCBeer: Let's backtrack to some of the actual beers. For each of you, what is the favorite collaboration you've done in the past five years? My personal question is when can we expect to see more Yonder Cities, the collab with Union. I've been thirsty for that ever since I first tasted it.
BS: First of all, Yonder Cities, I think you will definitely see more of that. I don't know exactly when. Every year when we lay out our beers, we say, 'Hey, we'd really like to brew this again.' And the Union boys say the same thing. But then the year happens, and we get busy, and beers start to get cut off, which is unfortunate, but it's how it goes. There's never enough tank space to make everything you want. But I guarantee you will see Yonder Cities again.
JH: Collaboration-wise, man, we've done so many. I always have a blast working on beers with Brian Strumke from Stillwater. Like Brandon mentioned, we love working with Union. It would be really hard for me to peg down one. I do have my hops, but I am definitely a bit of a lagerhead. One that we did for CBC in 2013 with Ska out of Durango, Taster's Choice, a doppelbock with coffee, was a big standout for me. Magic Number that we did recently with Union and Stillwater was a really big one for me. I'm a really big fan of [India pale lagers]. I love the riff on the style as far as substituting a lager yeast, as opposed to using a clean ale yeast. This most recent one with Cigar City, the Wise and the Lovely, which is our first first runnings beer we've ever done. The first big imperial stout we've ever done. We've done a Baltic porter before. I like championing darker beers. I think they're getting less of a bad rap these days. I've loved a lot of the darker beer collaborations we've done. Which is not to take away from the beers I didn't mention, these are just the ones that stand out for me personally.
BS: I had a blast with the Ska collaboration. Them coming out here and us going out to visit Durango. As far as the actual brewing of the collaboration goes, it's one of my favorites because of the banter and good fun we had during that whole time. When we brewed the collaboration here, Taster's Choice, it was literally a party at the brewery that we had. We had Bill and Thomas out here from Ska, and then we had the entire crew from The Pietasters here. It was like maybe one guy who didn't come from the band, so it was like nine members of a ska band in the brewery, and they wanted to be really involved. They were digging out the mash and milling in. It was a great vibe. We had a really good time.
Also all of the collaborations that we've done with Oliver Ales, we have a really good time when we go up there to brew with those guys. Most recently, I couldn't go, we just re-brewed Burial at Sea, and that brew was at the new facility. I was really bummed because I couldn't see it but all of the memories I have of doing brews there in the basement were very, very fun.
Also the Oskar Blues beer [Smells Like Freedom], we had a great time when we brewed that beer. We also really liked how it came out. It was a cool story, it was fun and exciting to put the beer together to work with the whole team. Out of the collaboration series that we just did, it's hard to pick one because they're all really, really fantastic. The Ripa the DIPA is a double IPA with two different types of rye in it. I think it's a really unique take on a double IPA. The Wise and the Lovely, we tasted 13 different blends of cocoa nibs, blind, to decide the blend that we wanted. Now tasting the finished beer, it comes through so clearly. I remember the taste of the nibs in that particular blend, and it really translates excellently into this brew.
DCBeer: Let's stay on the anniversary party you're doing the collabs for. How is this party a reflection your individual interests and the brewery's image overall. There are a lot of different ways you could celebrate this anniversary. You guys are doing it with this blowout. Why did you go this route?
JH: Me, Brandon, and our production manager, Chris Graham, were sitting down one day, and Chris originated it. We're coming up with our five year, why don't we do something insanely ambitious like brewing five collaborations, working with five different graphic artists, and having five different can designs? We barely pulled it off. We still aren't 100 percent there. Also, our love for music. It's actually how we initially met. It was at a house party, he was DJing. We love our dance music. We love our heavy metal. The Sword was one of our favorite bands that we sort of fell into simultaneously. So getting that as a headliner was great. Trying to do something above and beyond going to a restaurant or bar and having all your beers on, which is a good format, we've done that before. But five years is a pretty huge milestone for any business really. And it reflects who we are as a brewery. We love the collaborative nature, we love to do fun and exciting beers, we love to do fun twists on traditional styles. We love to party as well.
BS: This really originated from us wanting to do something that was a huge undertaking. We really wanted to celebrate five years being a massive milestone. We wanted to do it with something that we really had to earn. Chris proposed the idea of, 'Hey, what if we did five collaborations to mark five years, all at the same time?' And we thought, 'Yeah, that's crazy, let's do it.' So it all started from there, and we were planning a concert here to celebrate the five year party for as long as I can remember.
The past two years we had The Pietasters, and this year we wanted to really blow it out and do something in a different vein with the same sort of live music feel. Like Jeff was saying, we're huge metalheads, too. We love all sorts of rock and roll, but like like dune, stoner music kind of stuff is something close to our heart. The Sword, I've been a fan of them since before me and my wife met….Jeff and I, since we started the brewery and even before that would go and see The Sword every chance we could. We used to play them in the brewery all the time, and they still get played a decent amount. So it's really appropriate to have The Sword as a headliner.
What's really fun too is having Loud Boys involved. They've been friends with us for years and years. Serpent Throne, fun fact, the first week we were available in Philadelphia, I actually went up and saw Serpent Throne play at Underground Arts up there and just fell in love with those guys, too. There are a lot of great bands tied to our experience in DC, ties to our experiences with beer, and just music we like to listen to. We wanted to do something big and blow it out, and this is something that exceeded our expectations into how fun and complicated and crazy it would be to throw an event like this.
We really got to tap on a lot of our friends, too. Five separate artists, all artists we've gotten to use over the years here, and it's really great to bring them all in for one project that expresses the collaborative strength of everyone that we've worked with artistically. It has been a really fun project, really trying for us, it has been a lot of work, but it's all paying off. We have the first beer in cans, and we're about to do the second one in the second part of today. Then we can pack them all by hand into assorted mixed packs. It will be a great way to end this long journey it has been to make these collaborative beers.
DCBeer: My last two questions here. Let's turn an eye toward the future. How much room for expansion do you have in your current space? Are you starting to feel a little cramped in there with all of the tanks that you have? Can you fit larger tanks in that space? Also, predict the future. Five years from now, when hopefully I will not be having that call with you because I will have hopefully moved on from DCBeer, but someone presumably in the beer scene will be asking you these kinds of questions. In 2021, what does DC Brau look like? How have things changed and how have they stayed the same?
JH: As far as expansion goes, come June and July, we're going to have the entire lower level occupied, which will bring us to a grand total of around 47,000 square feet. We briefly entertained the idea of building a brand new facility from the ground up off-site, but we determined that we can still max out a lot more space that we have here. We're going to continue putting as many tanks as we can inside. We're currently expanding the brewhouse. We're going to be expanding our canning line. We hope to have both of those respectively commissioned, brewhouse first quarter of 2017, and canning line towards the end of 2017, early 2018. Once we fill up inside, we're looking at, and this is a ways down the road, getting some big outdoor tanks. With our new brewhouse, if we can fully max it out, we'll be close to 250 BBLs in a day. We're hoping that before we have to pack up and leave and look for another spot that we can be here for at least another 10-15 years. God, by 2021, probably producing between 30,000-40,000 BBLs if things continue the way they've been trending.
DCBeer: How big is the new brewhouse going to be?
JH: It's going to be a 30 BBL. Double our current size. Running a three vessel 15 BBL right now. Getting a state-of-the-art German brewhouse. Right now we can only produce about 60 BBLs in a day, but when we get up to peak daily production, we'll be able to get to upwards of 250 BBLs, but we're going to need a lot more fermentation space for that.
BS: Currently we're capped at doing about four brews a day. With this system, under optimal conditions, we should be able to brew about seven times in the course of one day.
JH: Then when the new canning line comes online…We've been running our Wild Goose line pretty hard since the day we commissioned it. We're going to be getting a new canning line that will be able to do 250 cans per minute. That's going to allow us to further expand the footprint both locally and regionally.
BS: One of the things that is going to be cool is we'll be keeping our current brewhouse. We did the math on selling it or keeping it, and what we decided that we really want to do is to keep it and brew really fun one-off beers. Just slightly over a year from now, we'll be launching a pretty ambitious barrel-aging program. Most of those beers will be brewed on the 15 BBL system that we currently have. In addition to that, it allows us to brew some smaller batch beer once we get the bigger system going. We'll be using the big system for flagships and the smaller system will have more of a specialty focus. We want to bring back the days where every weekend you came here there were new and exciting beers on that you've never heard of. Not things we need to build a release around but just something on-premise here at the brewery.